Prestige Rosé: The South of France in a Bottle

Pop the cork on a bottle of chilled Provence rosé and you’re instantly transported to the Côte d’Azur – no matter where in the world you find yourself. As you pour a glass of this delicate, salmon-hued wine and take that first vibrant sip, your senses are suddenly blinded by the recollection of brilliant blue skies and the vivid scent of the ocean breeze floating off the sparkling Mediterranean Sea.

Pink is in Fashion

Rosé, especially a Provence-style dry rosé, is having an extended moment in the sun. Social media campaigns have spread the message that it’s more than ok for real men to drink pink, and Instagram, in particular, is flooded with stylised images of beautiful young things clutching a glass of rosé. It has become the young and flirty alternative to more serious red and white varieties – think summer fun in a bottle.

Yet, while we are all quite partial to lazy afternoons spent with friends quaffing “swimming pool” rosé, as Master of Wine and Côte d’Azur resident Elizabeth Gabay quite aptly refers to it, a category of more complex, premium rosés have started to infiltrate the market, drawing on winemaking techniques previously reserved for its red and white equivalents, such as the use of oak for both fermentation and maturation.

Time to take Rosé Seriously

One of only 389 Masters of Wine in the world (making it surely the world’s most exclusive wine club), Elizabeth authored 2017’s “Rosé: Understanding the pink wine revolution”. The book has positioned this American-born, British raised, and long term Riviera resident as the leading global authority on the category. As Elizabeth points out, making rosé – especially the good quality stuff that has the potential to age – is in fact quite complicated. Along with that all-important pale pink colour, “you want the acidity of white wine and the fruit of the red wine and you want complexity and that’s where the difficulty is,” she continues.

Château d’Esclans and Sasha Lichine

One such pioneer of high-end rosé is Sasha Lichine at Chateau d’Esclans in the Var. He is acknowledged as one of the first producers to spot a gap in the market for a premium version of the popular quaffing wine. Something akin to wine royalty, his father Alexis Lichine was the renowned Russian wine writer and owner of Château Prieure Lichine, a Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé in Margaux. Sasha learnt the trade in both France and America before acquiring in 2006 an elevated estate in the heart of Provence rosé country – La Motte – and something of a legend was born.

Today, across 108 acres, or 44 hectares, of vineyards, the Esclans estate produces a white and a red wine, but it’s the family of four rosé wines – from the poetically named, entry-level Whispering Angel through to Rock Angel, Les Clans and its prestige cuvée, Garrus – for which it is most famous. Made from a vineyard of 80-year-old vines, the latter has been labelled the “greatest rosé ever” by esteemed wine critic James Suckling. With Garrus, Lichine did something that few winemakers before him had attempted, adding some white grape (the great Provençal variety Rolle, or Vermentino) into the predominately Grenache blend. The juice is left to mature for ten months in oak, resulting in a multi-layered rosé when, tasted blind, could be mistaken for white Burgundy and which only improves with age. Add to this some very clever marketing (Lichine targeted the yachting clientèle along the Côte d’Azur) and suddenly Esclan wines were a must-have on trendy wine lists from Manhattan to Melbourne.

Premium Wine, Premium Price

Wines like Garrus can easily command upwards of one hundred Euros a bottle; so the question I ask Elizabeth is if she thinks a bottle of rosé is worth such a price tag? “Nobody would challenge such a price for red or white wine,” she responds, “so I think instead the question should be why rosé is regarded differently?” Like any high-end wine, making these rosés is anything but cheap – Esclans currently only use oak barrels between one to two years old for its Garrus; in itself a massive investment.

As competition in the rosé category starts to heat up – “there are more regions in the world making rosé than even two years ago,” Elizabeth says, many offering a cheaper alternative to an easy drinking bottle of our local drop – Provence faces a battle to keep its place as the market leader. But all is not lost, Elizabeth hastens to add. “It’s the quality wine that will save Provence,” she says.